A is for Athens and A is for anarchy. Athens is covered with anarchist As.
They are everywhere, scrawled always in black, on newspaper kiosks and across ATM screens, on abandoned shop fronts (of which there are hundreds) and on the city’s bilingual signage. Yesterday, as Greece was going to the polls, two people on a motorcycle threw a hand grenade at the facade of a television station in the port neighbourhood of Piraeus. Luckily, the thing didn’t explode.
As the conservative pro-bailout New Democracy party last night started looking to put together a coalition following its probably pyrrhic victory in the country’s second general election in as many months, the feeling on the street seemed to be that the country probably won’t explode, either. Or, at least, not for the time being.
“Already we’re starting with the violence?” says Irene when I tell her the news at Brettos bar and distillery in the Plaka tourist district. The 48-year-old mother of two works behind the 100-year-old marble benchtop three days a week and the past three, she tells me, have been among the most political in its history. “I’ve never discussed Greek politics so much in my life,” she says.
One of the bar’s regulars, a 75-year-old mechanical engineer named Mimi, arrives with his much younger lover to discuss the vote.
“It was very difficult,” he says, “to know how to vote in this situation. A New Democracy-Pasok coalition would be very different from a Syriza-Pasok coalition. But there are benefits and drawbacks to each, you see, and it is hard to know whether the benefits will be dominant or the drawbacks.”
In the end, he said, he voted for New Democracy because, although he doesn’t believe that the far-left Syriza party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, would have ever pulled the trigger on Europe — “Greeks will not have this,” he says, dismissing ugly neologisms like “Grexit” out of hand — he’s not so sure that Europe would have refused to pull the trigger on Tsipras.
“Whoever won, Greece would have negotiated,” he says. “I voted for New Democracy to make sure that Europe will also negotiate. They would have all be calling each other frantically,” he says of Europe’s leaders, “if Tsipras had won. You know this.”
But Irene rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “There’s nothing new about New Democracy, though,” she says. “It’s a victory for the people who have screwed up. Syriza was what we needed. Someone new. Not the same old faces and ideas. We shouldn’t be voting to make Europe happy. We’ve been trying to make Europe happy for five years and look where it’s gotten us.”
It’s a view you come up against time and again on the streets. “Greece is not a prisoner of Europe,” reads one piece of graffiti in the city centre. “We are a free people.”
“This is true,” Mimi agrees and turns to me. “You must tell people this,” he says. “Greece is still a proud country. We do not hate Europe, but Europe must know that it can not keep pressing us like this.”
Alexander, a 27-year-old lawyer, is much more critical of his country: “Here is Athens: criminality, drugs, poverty. Have you been to the suburbs around Omonia Square? Junkies and pickpockets and people so poor you can’t stand it. Here is the real Athens.”
I had visited Omonia Square, but only for a Syriza rally several days earlier. Then it had been a sweaty, celebratory festival of Che Guevara T-shirts and zealous anti-austerity rhetoric. When national politics isn’t calling, however, it’s the sort of place that locals tell you to avoid. One girl, Amy, told me that she has been visiting her grandmother in the neighbourhood for years, but no longer feels safe doing so on her own.
“There are prostitutes and used needles everywhere,” she told me. “It’s awful, because my grandmother can’t leave the house any more.”
Upon my arrival in Athens, despite already knowing the answer, I asked my landlady whether we were in a safe area. “Oh, perfectly safe,” she told me. “Just don’t turn right when you go out the front door and don’t turn left when you get to the main street …” (A big-boned grandmother who once lived briefly in Melbourne — “You know Northcote?” — she is one of the many who believe that New Democracy’s victory will be short-lived and that its failure to institute any sort of lasting change will see the country return to the polls again before the end of the year. “That is when Syriza will win,” she says.)
Later on election night, in the New Democracy tent on Syntagma Square, a frail little beggar with an eye patch and a shit-stained shirt will try asking the party’s representatives for change and will end up crying against the wall when they decline, up until they kick him out. “This is how it has been since 2008,” Alexander says. “You go anywhere outside the tourist district and it is hard to believe that you are in Europe. This is not a modern city.”
Alexander does not have much hope for the likely coalition government or its prospects. “I don’t think anything good will come from this election,” he says. “We need more than a change of government. We need to change the way we think.”
He says that no economic measures — whether austerity or bailouts — will help to dig the country out of its hole so long as they are not accompanied by meaningful structural reform.
“You will hear that Greece is a victim,” he says. “This is not true. The World Bank, the IMF, I have problems with them, too, of course. But my problem with them is not the usual one. I think they have been far too lenient with us. They should have placed greater demands on us to reform.”
“In Greece, we avoid paying taxes,” he says. “That’s just how it is. When we are young, we can take private classes in tax evasion. We can pay someone to teach us how to make black money. This is why the bars and restaurants still have people in them despite five years of deep recession. They’re paying with the black money that we could have used to get out of this mess.”
Alexander has been forced to take part in such activities himself, he says, because his wages keep decreasing. He currently makes about €700 per month after tax, working full-time in his father’s law firm, an amount he buttresses with an extra €200 a month from off-the-books side jobs.
“This is not a lot of money,” he says, “and you must remember that this is an expensive city. To eat, to drink, to buy new clothes, to rent. It’s a good thing we live with our parents until we’re 30.
“But I’m just glad to be working. It is rare that a young person can say that these days. Our youth unemployment rate is higher than everywhere except Spain. I don’t know what I would have done if my father didn’t own the law firm. I would have left, I suppose, to the UK or Australia.”
How long does he expect the crisis to go on? “Another five years at the minimum. You know how the 1990s were a lost decade for Japan? Well, this decade has been lost to us, and it will take more than a vote to get it back.”